Survey: 54% of Americans say they have more emergency savings than credit card debt

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The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout have provided a stark reminder of the importance of building an emergency fund to help keep your finances afloat when the unexpected happens.

Bankrate’s February Financial Security Poll finds that 54 percent of Americans have more emergency savings than credit card debt. Despite the tough economy, this is 5 percentage points higher than in last year’s pre-pandemic survey and the highest percentage since 2018.

“The pandemic has altered the view of emergency savings, with more Americans now prioritizing saving ahead of paying down credit card debt,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst.

Meanwhile, more than 1 in 4 Americans (27 percent) report having more credit card debt than money saved in their emergency fund. This response saw a slight decrease of 1 percent compared to a year ago — even as the unemployment rate remains elevated.

When given the choice between boosting their emergency fund or paying down credit card debt, 52 percent of Americans said saving is a higher priority, which is up from 45 percent at the start of 2020.

Key findings:

Credit card debt vs. emergency savings

In the midst of the pandemic, 54 percent of respondents said they have more emergency savings than credit card debt. This compares to just 44 percent in 2019 and 49 percent in 2020, but is not quite as high as the 58 percent of respondents who said this in 2018.


As income level increased, so did the likelihood of having more in emergency savings than credit card debt. Bankrate’s survey found that 45 percent of people with an income less than $30,000 had more emergency savings than credit card debt. This percentage increased to 70 percent for households with an annual income of $75,000 or more.

Some 27 percent of Americans reported having more credit card debt than emergency fund savings, although this is the lowest level since 2018.

While having more emergency savings trumped credit card debt across every demographic group, the likelihood of having more credit card debt over emergency savings was higher among millennials (ages 25-40), women and non-white respondents:

  • 37 percent of millennials said their credit card debt exceeded their emergency fund balance; 31 percent of Gen Xers, 18 percent of baby boomers and just 10 percent of the silent generation (age 76+) are in the same position.
  • 31 percent of women had higher credit card debt than emergency savings compared to just 22 percent for men.
  • 37 percent of Black respondents and 32 percent of Hispanic respondents reported having more credit card debt vs. emergency savings; only 26 percent of White respondents said the same.


Among respondents, 16 percent said they do not have any credit card debt or emergency savings, leaving them more vulnerable should an emergency expense arise and increase the chances of facing a significant financial hardship without the means to get through it.

“With only a little more than half of households having more emergency savings than credit card debt and 1 in 6 lacking any emergency savings, there is much work to be done,” says McBride.

Saving is a higher priority than reducing credit card debt

A little more than half of Americans (52 percent) said increasing their emergency savings is a higher priority than paying down their credit card debt; meanwhile, 32 percent said paying down credit card debt is their higher priority. Savings as a priority increased seven percentage points compared to last year, while the percentage of people prioritizing paying down credit card debt decreased six percentage points from a year ago.

Some 8 percent of respondents said they are focusing on both saving and paying off debt. That’s the highest response to that question since it was introduced to the annual survey in 2018. In 2018 and 2019, only 3 percent were focused on both and in 2020, before the pandemic, it doubled to 6 percent.

The findings also show that women (34 percent) are more likely than men (30 percent) to make paying down credit card debt a higher priority than increasing savings. Meanwhile, millennials are the generation most likely to prioritize paying down their credit card debt, with 39 percent preferring to do this.

Don’t just focus on one financial goal at a time

Even with credit card debt, starting an emergency fund should be a priority for some of your money. An emergency can happen to anyone at any time, and only 39 percent of Americans could pay for an emergency expense of $1,000 from their savings account.

“Boosting emergency savings and paying down credit card debt doesn’t need to be an either-or proposition,” McBride says. “Work on both goals simultaneously by setting up a direct deposit from your paycheck into a dedicated savings account and funneling money not currently being spent on dining and entertainment into paying off high interest rate credit card debt.”

Budgeting can help you plan your spending and saving. It can also make sure money is being applied toward your priorities and help keep you from drowning in debt — regardless of what your income is.

Methodology

This study was conducted for Bankrate via telephone by SSRS on its Omnibus survey platform. The SSRS Omnibus is a national, weekly, dual-frame bilingual telephone survey. Interviews were conducted from Jan. 19-24, 2021, among a sample of 1,009 respondents in English (974) and Spanish (35). Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (304) and cell phone (705, including 468 without a landline phone). The margin of error for total respondents is +/- 3.72 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. All SSRS Omnibus data are weighted to represent the target population.

Written by
Matthew Goldberg
Consumer banking reporter
Matthew Goldberg is a consumer banking reporter at Bankrate. Matthew has been in financial services for more than a decade, in banking and insurance.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor